“Art Heals: The Power of Art Therapy”

During a girls’ group at a community mental health agency, a teenager paints tear drops on a plaster mask- after she recently witnessed a violent crime in her neighborhood.

On a pediatric oncology unit, a 10 year-old Spanish-speaking boy draws a picture of his brain and with a large black marker draws a large circle where his tumor is located.

At home, a recently widowed woman builds a shadowbox with pictures and keepsakes from her marriage to cope with her husband’s death and integrate the loss into her life.

During a family session, family members work together silently and build a “Peace House” out of modeling clay as a way of helping each other to improve their interpersonal communication and relationship skills.

These are just a few examples that illustrate how art therapy can help individuals of all ages and backgrounds find comfort and healing in their lives.

What is art therapy?
Art therapy is a profession that integrates the fields of art, counseling, and psychology.
The American Art Therapy Association (2007) defines art therapy as “an established mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.”
At one time or another we all have found that some experiences and feelings are too difficult or impossible to express in words. In art therapy, clients are encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings through drawings, paintings, collages, or other art forms. I view art therapy as a bridge connecting what is inside us – our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions – with our outer realities and life experiences.

What are the benefits of art therapy?
Within the fields of psychotherapy and counseling, there is a new emphasis on incorporating brief forms of therapy and completing treatment in a limited number of sessions. Through art expression, clients are able to communicate their issues and problems more quickly, thus expediting the treatment process. For example, during an initial evaluation, I might ask a client to create a drawing of her life as a line/road/river and include four or five significant life events. The purpose of this introductory art directive gives the client an opportunity to explore her life’s reality from a continuum based on her present state of mind – “meeting the client where the client is”. Then, towards the middle or end of her treatment, I might reintroduce this life line drawing and encourage her to add symbols or drawings that represent goals, wishes, and hopes for her future.

Art therapy is a concrete and tangible treatment modality. Clients are actively engaged in the manipulation of art materials and thinking and talking about their personal issues. To that end, when an image is created, this process of externalizing a thought or feeling provides a safe and distancing from difficult topics/issues.

Other therapeutic benefits of art therapy include:

• Personal fulfillment: Creating something tangible can build confidence and nurture feelings of self-worth. Personal fulfillment comes from the creative and analytical components of the artistic process.
Empowerment: Art therapy can help people visually express emotions and fears that they cannot express through conventional means, and can give them some sense of control over these feelings.
• Relaxation and stress- reduction: Chronic stress can be harmful to the mind and body. Stress can weaken and damage the immune system, cause insomnia and depression, and trigger circulatory problems (like high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats). It is also known that creative activity can increase brain levels of serotonin, an important chemical linked in battling depression. When used alone or in combination with other relaxation techniques like guided imagery, art therapy can effectively relieve stress.
• Symptom relief and physical rehabilitation: Art therapy can help patients cope with physical pain. It can promote physiological healing when patients identify and work through anger, resentment, and other emotional stressors. It is an adjunctive therapy for pain management in the treatment of chronically and terminally ill patients.

How does art therapy work?
In art therapy, the client is invited and encouraged to use their creativity to make original and authentic artwork. Artistic skill and talent is not required. There is also no right or wrong way to express thoughts or emotions during an art therapy session. The therapist focuses on the therapeutic process during art making and not specifically on the aesthetic value of the artwork that is created. An art therapist will closely observe the therapeutic process from the client’s selection of art materials, to the behavioral manifestations in which the client is creating an image, to the client’s personal meaning of what he/she is expressing. All of these components add to the unique richness of this therapeutic modality.

An art therapist may use two different approaches during a session: directive and nondirective. With the directive approach, the therapist gives the client a specific theme or instructions. For example, the therapist may say, “Draw a picture of a family doing something together.” The nondirective approach would not imply a specific subject matter or a particular way of completing the task. With this approach, the therapist may say, “Draw a picture of whatever you like”. This is also sometimes referred to as spontaneous art or free art expression. An art therapist may also combine the two approaches depending on the client’s needs and goals.

How does art therapy help?
Throughout history, art has been used to make sense of crisis, pain, and suffering. Modern medicine now recognizes the important role art can play in the healing process. I think art therapy helps individuals because it gives clients’ another language through which to communicate, a visual or sensory language. Art therapy is an effective form of treatment for all ages, especially in the treatment of children largely because art making is a natural way for them to communicate. Adults, on the other hand, can be somewhat resistant to expressing themselves artistically. In these cases, an art therapist may need to explore this resistance with a client and ensure that the art experience is an opportunity for self-exploration using a different medium other than words. The artwork that is created during a therapy session can also help in establishing therapeutic rapport by serving as a bridge between the therapist and the client. This metaphor of viewing artwork as a bridge can provide a safe and distancing factor for the client when certain issues or topics are too embarrassing or difficult to verbalize.

Who can participate in art therapy?
Art therapy supports the belief that individuals of all ages and backgrounds have the capacity to express themselves creatively. It is an effective form of treatment for all ages, especially in the treatment of children largely because art making is a natural way for them to communicate.

Art therapy is an exciting, dynamic and unique profession. It is one of the few therapies that is action-oriented and taps into the creative process. In art therapy, a tangible product is created which reflects a permanent record of personal meanings, experiences, and feelings. This art making process is a normalizing experience in that everyone
has the ability to be creative through art.

“Bear Angel”
Billy, age five

Billy, a five-year-old boy, who could not express in words how he felt when his mother died, used drawing to communicate his feelings about his loss. I met Billy at a children’s grief group in which I provided the children with art activities to help them cope with the loss of a loved one. Every week, Billy brought his teddy bear with him to the group for comfort. During the last session, Billy drew this picture of his mother as a “Bear Angel”. After Billy drew his picture, he smiled and said “My Mommy is all better now. She is an angel”. The art activities provided a safe place for Billy to express himself and how to find comfort in dealing with the loss of this mother.

How can I learn more?
Contact: Erin K. Brazill, LCSW, ATR-BC
Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Registered & Board-Certified Art Therapist
Associate Therapist
Gina L. Spielman, LCSW & Associates, Ltd.
Phone: (630) 346-5551
Email: ekbrazill@yahoo.com

Author's Bio: 

Erin K. Brazill, LCSW, ATR-BC, is an Associate Therapist with Gina L. Spielman, LCSW & Associates. Erin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an Art Therapist. Her specialties include: depression/anxiety, grief/loss, coping with physical illness, terminally/chronically ill populations, caregiver stress, trauma recovery, addictions, anger management, eating disorders, ADHD and more.

In addition to expressive, insight-oriented and cognitive therapies, Erin also provides holistic approaches to well-being, guided imagery, progressive relaxation techniques, pain management and self-hypnosis. Erin can see individuals, couples and families, and can treat clients of all ages.

Erin has 8 years of clinical experience in the field of mental health, and has had years of experience working as a Medical Social Worker.